If you’d told me I’d live long enough to see John Bolton as U.S. National Security Adviser, I’d be both relieved and unnerved. Relieved because it could only mean that the United States was even more secure than I had thought: so abundantly safe from danger that a person as clownishly wrong as Bolton can fail upward, seemingly forever. Unnerved because even very secure nations become insecure again eventually, and John Bolton is just the man for the job.
The first thing you need to understand about John Bolton is that he is the anti-Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s famous dictum about war being the continuation of politics by other means ended with the admonition that “the political view is the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.” In Bolton’s view, war is a vehicle for annihilation–there is no residual politics.
His weaseling out of responsibility for pushing the Iraq war involves divesting himself, and the United States, of responsibility for Iraq’s postwar politics. In Bolton’s view, unless the wreckage the war produced “flow[ed] totally and unchangeably from the decision to overthrow Saddam alone,” it’s not his fault, and not an indictment of the decision.
It may be true that previously-unobserved faeries could have sprinkled pixie dust on the insurgency, dissolving it and turning Iraq into Shangri-la, but here on planet Earth, the decision to invade was the necessary condition for killing nearly 5,000 Americans and draining a trillion dollars from unborn Americans’ bank accounts. By Bolton’s logic, unless you can prove that Iraqi Shia would never have “decided to assassinate Saddam for all that he had done to repress the Shia and Iraq would have descended into chaos,” don’t come whining at him about the disaster the war produced. Bolton is a lawyer by training, and his style of argument here is a big part of why people hate lawyers.
It’s no coincidence, then, that one of his first projects in the White House has been to try to find an Arab force stupid enough to take the baton from the Americans in Syria. The man is an arsonist, not a firefighter.
John Bolton is going to try to start a war.
Out of deference to Bolton’s lawyerly logic, perhaps we should clarify: Bolton is going to push for America’s adversaries to abandon all their objectives while acceding to all of America’s demands, at threat of war. So, war. The question is where. I would bet on Iran.
The thing about Bolton is that although he is a maniacal hawk, he’s also a reasonably deft political operator. Take the account of Matthew Waxman, a Bush national security official, who “served the Bush administration in the Defense and State Departments, where I watched Bolton often run circles around rivals or chew them to pieces”:
First, he’s a masterful bureaucratic tactician… Similar to former Vice President Dick Cheney, he knows the levers and knobs of the vast national security and foreign policy machinery: how they work, who works them, and how to exert control over them…
Second, he’s a crafty negotiator… As U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Bolton is mostly remembered for his hostility to the institution and for his coarse bluntness. Yet in that multilateral diplomatic maze, he often delivered for the administration, including on North Korea at the U.N. Security Council…
Third, he’s thorough and methodical…
This is dangerous stuff. I’d add that as the recent head of a hawkish PAC, Bolton has a good sense of where the political energy is on GOP foreign policy, and would be well-positioned to coordinate with hawkish GOP money men, particularly so on Iran.
Moreover, the Bolton PAC’s relationship to Cambridge Analytica has riled up the New York Times’ readers, although probably for the wrong reasons. Whatever the content of the “behavioral targeting with psychographic messaging” Cambridge Analytica did for Bolton, what Bolton was probably up to was ingratiating himself with billionaire GOP donor Robert Mercer, who was an early funder and partisan of Cambridge Analytica.
While lots of wonks hate working rooms, Bolton knows, and does, the politics of foreign policy. With an arsenal of hawkish donors, an enervated State Department, and a mercurial president, this might just be Bolton’s moment.
And it’s probably both for ideological and bureaucratic reasons that Iran is the most likely target. Bolton has wanted to attack Iran for years, and while the same is true of North Korea and probably a number of other countries, Bolton likely sees that the support network for reneging on the Iran deal and getting back on a path to war is better than in North Korea or elsewhere. Moreover, the president himself appears to be sustaining a pro-diplomacy line with respect to North Korea, while he’s shown himself inclined to put pressure on analysts to support predetermined notions about Iran, as well as saying things that are flatly untrue.
According to a White House official, “Trump was ultimately drawn to Bolton, in part because he was impressed by his many appearances on Fox News.” As the media has moved on from Bolton to the various other shiny objects surrounding the Trump presidency, smart observers should keep an eye on Bolton, and on what he’s up to when it comes to Iran.
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